"The only place he’s going is to Cooperstown.”
That’s what Yankees scout Dick Groch said when the Yankees wondered if they could draft Derek Jeter with the sixth overall pick in the 1992 MLB Draft or if Jeter would spurn them for his scholarship offer to the University of Michigan.
Groch was speaking with some hyperbole, of course. But he was the first to say what the rest of us have known for a long time and will become official this week: Hearing Jeter’s name will not be a surprise when the Baseball Hall of Fame balloting is announced Tuesday.
“To me, he’s the greatest Yankee there is,” Robin Ventura told me in 2012. “The time that he’s done it, the position that he’s played, the city that he’s played in and the team that he’s played for — you know, it’s different. It’s a different time, it’s a harder time than it is at any other point. Media, the internet, mobile phones, all that stuff going into it. There’s more pressure to it.”
There is no displacing Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, and Mickey Mantle on the Yankees' Mount Rushmore, with Yogi Berra holding off everyone else for the fifth spot. But Ventura’s point is clear — the environment Jeter played in was far different than one any of the other greats had to endure. Could you imagine Ruth or DiMaggio being tailed by TMZ?
The power numbers he lacked would always dent his place in barroom arguments about the greatest players of his and other eras. But 3,465 career hits — that’s a number that doesn’t get enough respect. Only five players in major league history accumulated more, and two of them — Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker — were born in the 1800’s.
Jeter’s ability to get big hits or make big plays were almost taken for granted. Except by those who witnessed them.
“When you’re playing against him you want him to have as little to do with the outcome of the game,” Terry Francona told me in 2014. “He’s not going to be out of position, he’s going to make the extra play as we’ve all seen him do, especially as the game gets tighter he’s always in the right place, so you want him to have the least amount of say-so in the game as possible.”
And Francona had a front row seat in the visitor’s dugout at Yankee Stadium in 2004 when Jeter made his famous dive into the stands, emerging bloody and bruised and holding the ball.
“That was probably him in a nutshell,” Francona said. “He has a knack for being in the right place at the right time, and that’s not luck.”
Larry Bowa, whose five decade career included two years as a Yankees coach, remembers Jeter keeping the young superstar Robinson Cano in check.
“Robby would get 2 or 3 hits and come out and be really digging himself, and Jete’s favorite line is, ‘Stay humble, Robby.’” Bowa remembered.
“He says that to everybody, and I even say that now to kids, ‘Hey, stay humble,’” Bowa told me. “And they look at me, and I say, ‘If you want to know what that’s all about, Derek Jeter is where I first heard that.’”
No, he wasn’t the greatest player ever or of his time. At various times there were players on his own team that appeared more talented. But if you put the package together and add it up over a twenty year career, we all knew a long time ago that Groch was right. And Tuesday night, it will become official.